Life and Early Career

Bhekokwakhe (Bheki) Hamilton Cele was born on 22 April 1952 to Albertina Mtshali and Gillford Cele at uMuzumbe Mission Hospital near Port Shepstone in Natal (now known as KwaZulu-Natal)[1]. When he was only nine months old his mother passed away, leaving him in the care of his father.

His father, a senior “Induna” (Chief) at the then South African Railways, raised him by himself until he passed away while Bheki was in high school[2]. He was left in the care of his relatives, which meant he had to move between rural uMuzumbe and Lamontville[3]. The difference between the rural areas in which he was born and the wealth he saw in Durban contributed significantly to Cele’s politicisation in the struggle for liberation during apartheid.

“I remember when I was doing matric, I only had one shirt but was the cleanest in the class. The teachers asked me if I had a new shirt for every day, and were amazed when I told them I only had one shirt and washed it every evening”[4]

When Cele completed high school, he approached his father’s friend and previous supervisor at South African Railways for financial aid to study law. He was told that bursaries were only reserved for children of white employees. “I could not understand that, how could you give financial aid to those that have, and deny it to those that really need it,” he said[5]. Cele ended up having to raise his own funds to study.

Cele spent the next few years working and studying towards a teacher’s diploma. After qualifying as a teacher, Cele took up a position at a school in uMbumbulu, a rural area in KZN[6]. This was during the 1980s, at the height of the township struggles, and although Cele was a teacher he also joined the struggle for liberation[7]. He initially joined the United Democratic Front (UDF), and later joined the African National Congress (ANC) underground network.

Under the command of Jacob Zuma, and working with the likes of Matthew Goniwe, Cele became instrumental in the founding of the National Education Union of South Africa (NEUSA), which sought to reform the educational needs of the country as a whole[8]. This would become a predecessor to the South African Democratic Teachers Union (SADTU)[9].

In 1984 Cele’s political activities caught the attention of the state’s security forces. He narrowly evaded capture when they came for him while he was working at school, jumping out the window into the schoolyard[10]. He then joined the ANC’s military wing, uMkhonto we-Sizwe (MK), in Angola[11]. He was smuggled back into the country in 1987 but was caught by the security police and sent to Robben Island, joining the cohort of other political activists and solidifying Cele’s legacy as part of the struggle against apartheid[12]. Cele was released in 1990 along with other political prisoners.

Political Career

1994 - 2009

After South Africa’s 1994 democratic elections, Cele was appointed a member of the KwaZulu-Natal Provincial Legislature[13]. During this time, he served as Chairperson of the Portfolio Committee on Safety and Security. From 2004 to 2009 he served as a Member of the Executive Committee (MEC) for Transport, Safety and Security in KwaZulu-Natal[14]. Cele was also appointed Chairperson of Chairpersons in the Provincial Legislature during this time.

Cele was hailed by former president Jacob Zuma for finding solutions to the taxi conflicts in the province, leading successful anti-crime campaigns, and promoting safety on provincial roads and highways[15]. Zuma also lauded Cele’s initiative for prioritising road infrastructure in previously marginalised areas and communities[16].

2009 - 2011

In recognition of his efforts in KwaZulu-Natal, Cele was appointed National Commissioner of the South African Police Service (SAPS) in 2009 to lead “efficiently and effectively” and to improve “capacity to fight crime.”[17] However, in 2011 Cele was suspended by Zuma after allegations of unlawful property deals came out[18]. Former Public Protector, Thuli Madonsela, found that buildings that were to be leased and used for police headquarters in Durban and Pretoria were leased at inflated prices from companies connected to Cele specifically. The Durban deal offered an amount of $169 million to a “politically connected property tycoon for a lease that was worth less than one third of that amount.”[19] Cele’s involvement in these deals was argued to be “improper, unlawful, and amounted to maladministration.”[20] In 2012 he was officially removed from the position of National Commissioner of SAPS after a board of inquiry found that he was not fit to hold office.

2014 - present

From May 2014 until February 2018, Cele served as Deputy Minister of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries[21]. When Cyril Ramaphosa was elected president in 2018, he appointed Cele as Minister of Police in his first cabinet reshuffle[22]. Cele was reappointed as Minister of Police in 2019 and is currently still serving in this position.

Major Controversies


Throughout Cele’s political career, he has maintained that fighting crime is a big issue that needs to be dealt with in South Africa. He has called for heavy measures to be pursued against criminals, which has more often than not landed him in controversy.

In July 2007 the Sowetan reported that Cele, who was the MEC for Transport, Safety and Security at the time, had told a meeting in Durban that police should be allowed to “shoot to kill” and use “deadly force” when confronting criminals[23]. Although Cele later denied he used the words “shoot to kill,” he admitted that he made other similar remarks, such as “we cannot allow police to be killed by criminals. Once criminals pull their guns, police must aim for the head.”[24] Despite Cele denying these statements, the Sowetan continued to publish two articles in 2007; these articles reiterated Cele’s call for police to “shoot to kill” and included a digitally-altered picture of Cele holding a gun[25]. In 2010 Cele took the newspaper to court and asked for R200 000 to be paid in damages for the defamation that arose from these articles[26]. Cele argued that the image defamed him and infringed on his dignity because he would not usually present himself as shown in the picture[27]. The case was later dismissed on the account that there were two newspaper reporters, one from the Sowetan and another from the Citizen, who were present at the meeting in Durban who heard Cele call for police to “shoot to kill.”[28] The presiding Judge, Faye Kathree-Setiloane, said that Cele’s arguments were “ill-conceived” - that “whether one uses the term ‘aim for the head,’ use deadly force’ or ‘shoot to kill,’ their meaning and import is the same.”[29] The case was dismissed with costs, which meant Cele had to pay for the Sowetan’s legal fees on top of his own, which amounted to R400 000[30].

In August 2009 Cele again made the call for “shoot to kill” when being interviewed by the Weekend Argus. He explained that the police “needed to match the firepower of criminals” and use “deadly force.”[31] Cele continued and said that he wants to create a country “where people aren’t told they’re safe, but actually feel safe” and that in order to do so, the police should be allowed to “deal with whoever is standing in their way, so… they are ready to shoot.”[32] Cele further explained that the law needs to be changed so that police can do their job and not think about what is right or wrong: “police must think about what is in front of them and do the job, or else they get killed.”[33] In the interview Cele specifically pointed towards Section 49 of the Criminal Procedure Act, which outlines the grounds for the justifiable use of deadly force, saying that it should be amended so that police can shoot to kill” criminals without worrying about what happens after that.”[34]

These remarks also drew significant international attention, because the Fifa World Cup was to be hosted in South Africa in 2010. When speaking to the Los Angeles Times about these remarks, Cele denied that he said that police can “shoot to kill” - instead, he explained that it was dangerous for police officers to be unsure about whether they were permitted to use deadly force when confronting criminals[35]. In other interviews, Cele clarified that the police should not shoot innocent people, but should “decisively defend themselves” against armed and dangerous criminals[36]. Asked about his remarks in 2018, after being appointed Minister of Police, Cele denied using the phrase “shoot to kill,” and insisted that he only urged police to not be afraid when dealing with “tough brutal criminals.”[37]

Ive said that the police must understand when they deal with the tough brutal criminals, they must not die with their guns in their hands and I still say so”[38]

Cele has on several occasions since reminded SAPS officers that they should use deadly force whenever it is necessary to deal with criminals.

[1] KwaZulu-Natal Department of Transport. 2004. MEC for Transport, Safety and Security, Mr Bheki Cele. Available at: [14 July, 2022].

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Dixon, R. 2009. South Africa struggles with rising crime. LA Times. Available at: [28 July, 2022].

[8] KwaZulu-Natal Department of Transport, MEC for Transport, Safety and Security, Mr Bheki Cele.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Dixon, South Africa struggles with rising crime

[12] KwaZulu-Natal Department of Transport, MEC for Transport, Safety and Security, Mr Bheki Cele.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Politics Web. 2009. Why I chose Bheki Cele - Jacob Zuma. Available at: [22 July, 2022].

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Conway-Smith, E. 2012. South Africa: Police chief Bheki Cele fired by President Jacob Zuma. Available at: [3 September, 2022]; also see BBC News. 2012. South African police chief Bheki Cele fired by Jacob Zuma. Available at: [9 September, 2022].

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.

[21] KwaZulu-Natal Department of Transport, MEC for Transport, Safety and Security, Mr Bheki Cele.

[22] Du Plessis, C. 2018. Cabinet Reshuffle: SA government gets a full makeover. Daily Maverick. Available at: [9 September, 2022].

[23] Nhlabathi, H. 2014. ‘Shoot to kill’ rant to haunt Bheki Cele - ex police boss loses court case against Sowetan. The Sowetan. Available at: [7 September, 2022].

[24] Ibid.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Goldstone, C. 2009. Police must shoot to kill, worry later - Cele. IOL. Available at: [5 September, 2022].

[32] Ibid.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Ibid.

[35] Dixon, South Africa struggles with rising crime

[36] SA News. 2009. Cele takes jab at media on “shoot to kill” statement. Available at: [8 September, 2022].

[37] Lekabe, T. 2018. Bheki Cele denies ever calling for police to ‘shoot to kill’. The Citizen. Available at: [3 September, 2022].

[38] Ibid.


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